Brian Wilson's New Memoir Delves Inside The Mind of the Oft-Tortured Genius

Reading I Am Brian Wilson is like having a conversation with Brian Wilson.

In fact, it's more like having a conversation with Brian Wilson than having an actual conversation with him. This is the discussion that every music enthusiast and admirer of the man would want to have with Brian Wilson that would never be possible over the phone or face to face.

The entire book reads in Wilson's voice and the very nature of how he talks. How he tells stories is embedded in every sentence. Through its pages, he tells the tale of more than 50 years of making music, falling in love, facing countless losses, and wrestling with severe mental illness. The conversational style of the book makes it a quick read, because it literally feels like he's sitting across the table from you connecting the dots of his own life story as he writes it. It feels authentic, not only for its tone and style but for its flaws, since that's how Brian talks and thinks and acts. It's imperfectly flawless. It is an amazing body of work and one of the more unusual memoirs for more than the narrative.

There is the sheer childlike charm to I Am Brian Wilson, which is again reflective of the man himself as well as a credit to ghostwriter Ben Greenman for assisting in capturing Wilson's character in book form. After just finishing it, the impression of his existence is overwhelming. Not only is Brian Wilson not made for these times, I'm not sure if he was made for this planet in an era. He's a humble genius whose biggest struggle has been with himself and those he trusted the most, a man who has only wanted harmony his entire life, a man whose life has been dedicated to making musical mythology, whose life, in turn, has became mythical. Wilson looks back with wonder, fear, fascination, love, and mercy. Love and mercy are more than a song or a movie to Wilson. They are a way of life, and this book is written with that in mind. With the possible exception of perhaps Eugene Landy, the psychiatrist whose controversial treatment upended Wilson's career in the '80s, Wilson is very objective and honest about his mixed emotions with other damaging figures in his life. Even with Landy, it just seems he's being up front and honest about his bitterness. The chapter centered around his father is gut-wrenching, but what's more stunning is the endearing perspective Wilson takes on his father.

"I have said how hard it is for me to talk about my dad, and that’s partly because I want to get it right. ... I don’t like making the discussion all about how terrible my dad was," Wilson writes as he presents both the horribly abusive side of Murry Wilson as well as the loving side.

The structure of the memoir is another fascinating aspect of the book. It's vaguely in linear order, but on six different timelines that continually intersect. Many of the chapters are started from his favorite chair in his LA home as he talks about his modern-day routine, which leads to a memory. This again lends to the idea that he is telling you this entire story from that chair. The memories have memories inside of them, and it becomes clear what the milestones in his life were from his perspective.

There are two camps of Beach Boys fans: There are those who simply love the surf and car tunes from the first 10 albums and love the goofball antics of Mike Love, and then there is the Church of Wilson. This is definitely a book for the latter group, as well as a book for music geeks in general. But on another level, this is about persevering through mental illness and never giving up.

"I want people to know what I went through and want people to understand," Wilson said when I spoke to him. "I felt liberated, and it was good telling the honest truth."

His story hinges around all that happened to him in 1964 with the beginning of his mental collapse as well as the appearance of his genius. It hinges on Pet Sounds, on SMiLE, on Sunflower, Surf's Up, Holland, Love You, Today!, Summer Days. The albums he digs into the most are resoundingly his best works and fan favorites. It's a fascinating ride as he travels from backstage at The Royal Albert Hall for the performance of SMiLE in 2004, back to 1964 melting down in the Houston airport, to teaching his brothers to sing in the '50s, to 1970 and the cover shoot for Sunflower, to every step of his solo career, to brushing off the Beach Boys' efforts after Wilson left them to their own devices.

"Most fans of the band don't like those records. Some fans don't even know about them. There are only a few songs on those records that I like ... but mostly they aren't worth thinking about too hard," he says. 
There are also harrowing tales of insanity, drug abuse, and admitted failings as a husband and a father. It's impressive that Wilson completely owns up to his own madness and is genuinely regretful over bad decisions in the past, while wildly forgiving to someone like Mike Love, who gets about a sum total of two paragraphs in the entire book. You can tell it's another mixed bag of emotions for Wilson, because on the one hand, he had admired his Beach Boys songwriting partner since they were teens, but on the other, the bad blood between them has never been readily resolved. Yet the harshest thing Wilson has to say is "Mike had a funny way of looking at things."

It is also an open love letter to Wilson's supportive wife, Melinda, who saved him from Landy and got him back on track for his third act. This is the story of a hero as well as an artist, a genius, and a musician. He frankly portrays his mental illness from the beginning to his lowest depths to the heights he's at today. He gets into the darkest territory of his mind, but he was committed to presenting the truth as he saw it.

"I was scared of some of the memories," Wilson says about his commitment to the book. "I don't know how I did it. I don't know how."

Famous people from the music world make appearances. Phil Spector, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, the Rolling Stones, and a litany of people he clearly admires like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney all have cameos. Songs that guide his life appear throughout — The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," the jazz standard "Tenderly," Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue," and the Animotion song "My Obsession" — and each of those songs provides connective tissue between the various timelines. The story maps every solo tour and every achievement, coming up very nearly to the present day while he is on his Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour and planning his next album. It's an piercing look into the mind of one of the greatest composers of 20th-century American music, and it's as self reflective and self-aware as possible, walking a tightrope between sorrowful remembrances and enlightened wisdom. In 300 pages Brian Wilson tells a tale that's as fascinating as any of his American sagas, a book that reads as much as a confessional as it does an act of catharsis. Wilson talks of the weight lifted from his shoulders after completing SMiLE, but you get the sense I Am Brian Wilson was a similar exercise in coming to terms with an overwhelming life.

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Mitchell Hillman